John Randolph Bray (1879-1978) was a pivotal figure in the development and organization of the animated cartoon industry in the United States. By introducing important technological advances along with new innovations in the organization and process of producing animated films, Bray earned a dual reputation as one who championed the success of the animated film industry and one who turned artistic work into an assembly-line production.
John Randolph Bray
Bray was born on August 25, 1879, in Addison, Michigan, a small farming town where his father served as a minister. He entered Alma College in Michigan in 1895, but the following year abandoned his formal studies. In 1901 he became a reporter for the Detroit Evening News. During his two-year stint in Detroit, Bray's assignments included examining corpses at the morgue in order to recreate sensational accident reports. In 1903 he moved to New York to join the staff of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as a cartoonist. During his time with the Daily Eagle, Bray met and married Margaret Till, a German immigrant working as a translator at Columbia University. From the start of their marriage, Margaret was a dynamic force behind Bray's success. Desiring to venture into full-time freelancing as a cartoonist, Bray sought his wife's counsel. She readily agreed to maintain a job until Bray could establish his freelance career. As a result, Bray left the Daily Eagle and began offering his services as an illustrator and cartoonist around New York.
Bray's first important break came in 1906 when Judge accepted his one-panel animal cartoons for publication. The following year Judge began publishing Bray's comic strip "Little Johnny and His Teddy Bears." The full-page strip consisted of six panels with rhyming captions. Created out of the teddy bear craze instigated by Teddy Roosevelt, the bears were accompanied by a typical boy-hero named Johnny. The comic strip, which received wholeheartedly positive reviews, ran for the next three years. Bray also regularly contributed cartoons to Life and Harpers, as well as creating the strip "Mr. O. U. Absentmind" for the McClure Newspaper Syndicate.
Began Working with Animation
Succeeding in gaining financial security, Bray moved out of the city to a farm in Highland Falls. Although his cartoon work continued to be well received, the frequency of appearances of his work in publications was declining by the early 1910s, apparently due to Bray's increasing fascination with animation. Around 1910 he began experimenting with the development of an original animated cartoon. He was apparently influenced by Porter's The Teddy Bears, released in 1907, which was created by using stop motion photography of real teddy bears. However, after numerous failed attempts, Bray concluded that the number of drawings required by the process was prohibitive. Wishing to create an animated cartoon that was both entertaining and financially lucrative, he began to look for ways to eliminate the massive amount of detail necessary to produce an animated version of a comic.
Bray's first completed cartoon animation was released in 1913. Accepted and released by well-known producer Charles Pathe, The Artist's Dream (or The Dachshund and the Sausage) portrayed an artist drawing a chest of drawers with a dog sleeping next to it. As the artist completes a drawing of a bowl of sausages on the chest of drawers, his wife enters and calls him away. After the artist leaves, the drawing comes to life: The dog jumps up, climbs up the drawers, and wolfs down the sausages until ultimately it explodes. The venture resulted in a contract with Pathe for six more films in six months, with a new film to be released each month. Considering it had taken Bray at least six months to create The Artist's Dream, the contract provided a challenge that Bray would be unable to meet. However, even though production times had to be extended, the need for streamlined production forced Bray to find creative solutions to the problem of how to make animated cartoons financially successful.
Streamlined the Animation Process
To eliminate the time-consuming task of completely redrawing the entire cartoon for each frame, Bray came up with the idea of using a printed background. Using zinc etching, hundreds of identical background scenes with the center left blank were printed on tracing paper. Bray then added the moving components of the cartoon to the blank center, thus drastically reducing the time and the number of skilled artists needed to complete an animated cartoon. The new technique was considered an improvement over fellow cartoon animator Winsor McCay's method of retracing all the lines in each frame, which often would appear to wiggle and wobble when cast on the film screen. Wishing to protect his new technique, Bray filed for his first U.S. patent, which was granted as No. 1,107,193. Bray, with the help of a wife whose intelligence and business sense proved to be a valuable asset, was on his way to revolutionizing the animation industry.
To produce the films under contract with Pathe, Bray assembled a staff of artists that he kept sequestered at his Highland Falls home during the week. Despite the lack of distractions, it took Bray's team six months to complete the first project promised to Pathe. Colonel Heeza Liar's African Hunt was released on January 14, 1914, followed by subsequent films in March, April, May, and August. By the end of 1914 Bray had formed Bray Studios Incorporated with $10,000 in capital and an office on 26th Street in New York. As much businessman as animator, Bray hired talented artists and ceased contributing artistically to his films. Instead, he focused on improving the technological processes and streamlining production. Under Bray's direction, the animation process became compartmentalized. Previously, cartooning and animation were considered art forms to be undertaken by a single artist. As such, not every animator welcomed Bray's assembly-line approach. Nonetheless, Bray began employing animators who relied on assistants for portions of the work. After Paramount picked up the contract on Colonel Heeza Liar, Bray also began producing weekly episodes of three other animated cartoons created by his talented staff, including Earl Hurd's Bobby Bumps, Max Fleischer's Out of Ink, and Paul Terry's Farmer Al Falfa.
In July 1914 Bray took out a second patent that covered the technique of applying gray shades to drawings in order to counteract the flicker caused by all-white backgrounds. Bray's most important contribution to film animation, making production of animated cartoons much cheaper and faster, was the introduction and implementation of the cel system of animation. Actually, the process was similar to his previous invention of printing backgrounds on sheets of paper. However, inventor and animator Earl Hurd had patented an alternative technique in 1914 that used celluloid, an early form of plastic. "In fact," writes Giannalberto Bendazzi in Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, "Hurd's process was not only alternative, but ultimately more important than Bray's: it consisted of the cel process, involving the drawing of characters on transparent celluloid sheets, which then were applied over painted background scenes. The transparent sheet was called cel in English, and cellulo in French (from celluloid)." Because of the sheets' transparency, only the moving parts needed to be drawn without worrying about blending them into a printed background as in Bray's method. Also the cels could be stacked to create multiple layers, although the plastic sheets were thick and tended to appear yellow if stacked too deep, which usually limited the number to three sheets or less.
Hurd could have begun to operate in competition with Bray. However, fortunately for Bray, the importance of Hurd's invention was yet to be realized. To prevent legal disputes over patent rights, Bray invited Hurd to become his partner and effectively took control of his patent. The relationship between Bray and Hurd is obscure. Little is known about how they met or became associated. Even though Hurd was brought aboard as a partner, he was never considered by Bray to be more than an employee of the firm. In 1916 Bray filed for his third and last patent, which incorporated and consolidated the methods of cel animation. With a monopoly on the technological processes, Bray made a substantial fortune by selling licenses for the use of the patented techniques, until the patents ran out in 1932. With the help of his wife, Bray vigilantly pursued claims against those who dared infringe on his patents, leading to numerous long legal battles.
Instructional Films and Animation
In 1915 Bray signed a large contract with Paramount. By the following year, he had earned enough through the agreement to purchase the controlling share in what became Paramount-Bray Pictograph. With the United States' entrance into World War I, Bray discovered another lucrative outlet for his work: Army training films. Using a new process recently patented by staff animator Max Fleischer called rotoscoping, Bray's firm developed training films on such topics as the operation of Browning machine guns, rifle grenades, trench mortars, as well as how to harness horses used in the Calvary. Rotoscoping involved projecting film footage one screen at a time and tracing each screen onto cels, thereby creating images of remarkable clarity. Having just received the contract with the U.S. War College, Fleischer was drafted. Upon Bray's protest that he needed his artist to complete the project, Fleischer was granted leave from regular duty and assigned to oversee the making of the films.
Over the next three years, Bray turned his attention to filling continuous orders from the military, industry (especially the rapidly growing automobile industry), and educational facilities. In 1919 Bray severed his relationship with Paramount and created Bray Pictures Corporation, vested with $1.5 million in capital. Nonfiction documentaries and technical films became the company's leading emphasis. By joining forces with filming industry great Samuel Goldwyn, Bray released a slew of films, often more than three a week. Despite the shift in focus, Bray's studio also continued to release cartoon films, including more episodes of Colonel Heeza Liar, Lampoons, Dinky Doodle, and Hot Dog Cartoons. On February 8, 1920, Bray and Goldwyn released the first color cartoon, The Debut of Thomas Cat, using a process akin to the techniques recently developed in Technicolor filming. Although it received good reviews, it was Bray's only attempt at color animation as the process proved too expensive to be economically feasible.
By the late 1920s Bray was almost completely removed from the daily operation and production of animation. Attending to distribution and marketing were his main concerns. He did find time for several projects of special interest, including an attempt to produce H. G. Welles' Outline of History. Despite Bray's efforts to see the project into production, he finally abandoned the idea as overly ambitious and never made the film. In 1927 he accompanied a filming expedition down the Colorado River which resulted in the full-length documentary Bride of the Colorado. During the 1930s he produced a series of short comedy films for Goldwyn-Bray Pictographs entitled McDougall Alley Comedies. In the 1940s, with the onset of World War II, Bray once again went to work for the U.S. Army producing instructional films along with documentaries, health and safety films, and travel films.
The End of an Era
Bray's stronghold on the animation industry began to wane during the early 1930s when his patents ran out. Also with the introduction of sound film, the entire film business was moving in a new direction, leaving Bray's era of silent animation behind for good. Bray's ability to shift gears and take on new projects and directions in business allowed him to maintain a respectable business well beyond the life of the silent animated cartoon. His push for technological advances along with the organization of the process went a long way in transforming animation from an art form into a profitable business endeavor. Donald Crafton, who calls Bray "the Henry Ford of Animation," writes in Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928, "Bray's reputation as the man who stripped animation of all its individuality and artistic interest was undeserved. But, like Ford, he did revolutionize a fledgling industry, and he inexorably changed the lives of those associated with it." Bray remained active in his company well into his eighties. In 1963 he removed himself as president of Bray Studios, but remained as chair of the board. Having turned his company over to his grandson, he moved into a nursing home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the late 1960s where he died in October 1978, just a few months before his 100th birthday.
Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. John Libbey and Company, 1994.
Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928. MIT Press, 1982.
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd edition. Revised by Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolan. Harper Collins Publishers, 1998.
The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons. edited by Maurice Horn, Chelsea House Publishers, 1980.
The World Encyclopedia of Film. edited by John M. Smith and Tim Cawkwell, World Publishing, 1972.
"J. R. Bray." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists. St. James Press, 1996. Available at http://www.galenet.com(February 28, 2001).